Friday, August 5, 2022

The Ukrainian misfit trying to take back the chess from the Kremlin and give it to the world

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Andrii Baryshpolets, 31, is an unknown relative with a mission: to overthrow Arkady Dvorkovich, the Russian leader of Fide

In the public imagination and in the corridors of power, chess is a Russian occupation. In the post-war period, the World Championship was played almost 75 percent of the time by Soviet or Russian grandmasters, and after the dissolution of the USSR it was able to retain its political clout and has held the post of President of Fide since 1995.

But when Arkady Dvorkovich, Russia’s former deputy prime minister and the country’s tsar at the 2018 World Cup, announced he was planning a second term in Ukraine in 2022 despite the Kremlin’s invasion, one Ukrainian decided it was time to get up.

“When I saw Dvorkovich trying to get re-elected despite everything that happened, I couldn’t believe it,” said Andrii Baryshpolets, a challenger in this Sunday’s Fide presidential election I by phone from Chennai, India, where he is fighting on the fringes of the Chess Olympiad.

“But there wasn’t a good and viable alternative, so I decided to offer a choice.”

The 31-year-old from Kyiv, who works for PWC in Los Angeles, is a grandmaster himself, but he wasn’t a prominent figure in the contentious world of chess politics before breaking ranks to challenge Russia’s dominance.

“It was disappointing that Dvorkovich was elected in 2018, but after massive Russian aggression one cannot believe he is suitable,” Mr Baryshpolets said.

Chess treated war in an idiosyncratic way. Dvorkovich himself faced backlash in Russia for saying his “thoughts are with the Ukrainian civilian population,” and Sergei Karjakin, a former World Cup challenger, was handed a six-month ban for expressing very pro-war sentiments (The ban expires soon, which “makes no sense,” says Baryshpolets, because “nothing has changed.”)

Other Russians were still allowed to compete under the neutral flag, including Ian Nepomniachtchi, the 2021 challenger who will fight for the title again in 2023. Some players have fled, some have remained silent, and some have criticized the war in every word they can.

A major fear of many members of the chess world outside of Russia is that Dvorkovich could be sanctioned due to his close ties to the Kremlin, or at least big companies outside of Russia will be wary of working with a global organization run by a former member of the Putin Administration.

Chess is coming to the end of a pandemic boom sparked by a generation with more free time to play and boosted by the Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. But it’s Russian companies like nuclear utility Rosatom, fertilizer maker PhosAgro and airline Aeroflot – all with strong ties to the Kremlin – whose logos have become prominent at major tournaments.

It was a standing start but Mr Baryshpolets had a surprising secret weapon. His running mate is Peter Heine Nielsen, the prominent Danish Fide critic who is also the most successful chess coach of all time. His current employer is the only man in the chess world more powerful than the Fide president: five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen.

On the verge of missing a nomination deadline, the near-superhuman Norwegian pawn driver tapped into his 669,000 Twitter followers (compared to Baryshpolets’ hundreds). Questions: “Chess Associations of the Americas! Can one of you please pledge your support for the Baryshpolets/Nielsen ticket? [Nielsen] Can I focus on preparation instead?”

It worked although Carlsen, who has withdrawn from his next title defense but remains an active player, has not otherwise joined the campaign, Mr Baryshpolets said.

In fact, the Ukrainian’s fight was largely lonely. Dvorkovich mobilizes the power of the global Fide organization, and previous elections have even revealed that the Kremlin has put diplomatic pressure on Israel’s government for support.

But Mr Baryshpolets didn’t even get the support of the President of the Chess Federation of Ukraine when he asked for it. He also has no good connections with Volodymyr Zelenskyy or other prominent personalities in his home country. “I had no direct contact with the government or political leaders,” he said, “although of course I do a lot of interviews in Ukraine.”

By his own admission, he is “not a chess politician” – he’s just a member of the chess world who couldn’t see a candidate who shared his disappointment with Dvorkovich’s continued leadership and his desire to bring a new openness to the game.

“Chess had the image of being an exclusively Soviet sport, but chess is booming in many countries: China, India, Iran, the US, many European countries,” he said. “It has already become a global game, but Fide is still under Russian influence.”

“It is a doom-loop. When we have Russian politicians at the helm, it becomes more difficult to change Fide to make it more open. I want to win to open positions for people from Africa and South America, wherever the best people are.”

The odds are against Baryshpolets and his teammates Inalbek Cheripov and Bachar Kouatly. Arkady Dvorkovich is popular in some circles, particularly outside the alternative chess capitals of Europe and the US, and his running mate, former World Champion Viswanathan Anand, gives him added appeal in countries looking to India’s vast and burgeoning chess scene.

But Baryshpolets, who has launched a website with a whole host of suggested advisers and guidelines, will try. “People are beginning to doubt that it is possible to win the election” against Russian hegemony, he said. “The chess world is stuck in a bad habit.”

That has to change sooner or later.

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